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Larry Stone: With QB job his, Jacob Eason gets chance to take Washington Huskies to new level

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 23, 2019, 4:55 p.m.

Washington quarterback Jacob Eason greets a teammate during practice Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Washington quarterback Jacob Eason greets a teammate during practice Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It was the decision that seemed inevitable, but by all accounts really wasn’t.

Yet the choice of redshirt junior Jacob Eason to start the season as Washington’s quarterback, achieved in characteristically painstaking and stealth fashion by head coach Chris Petersen, is salve for those who yearn to see the Huskies climb to the next level of the college football hierarchy.

That isn’t to detract from Jake Haener, the hardworking junior who pushed Eason to the brink. And it’s certainly not to add to the criticism that has permanently attached itself to the outgoing quarterback, Jake Browning; all he did was win more games than any other Husky signal-caller in history, but it was never quite good enough for many, it seems.

What Browning didn’t do, of course, was beat Alabama in the Peach Bowl, or Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, or Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. That shouldn’t fall on his shoulders; there were multiple factors that led to those defeats. But for all his acumen, all his production, all his achievements, Browning had limitations that became more glaring against those elite teams.

Eason, who was an all-world prospect out of Lake Stevens (Washington) High School when he committed to the University of Georgia, will provide the promise of next-level greatness.

The fact that Eason didn’t seize the job until less than two weeks before the Aug. 31 season opener against Eastern Washington is a bit alarming for a player as touted as he has been. But it’s also a tribute to the tenacity and talent of Haener, who according to the buzz coming out of camp was under legitimate consideration for the job all along.

Yet the 6-foot-6, 227-pound Eason, with a frame straight from the NFL prototype catalog, has the arm talent that makes coaches drool. He never got a chance to show it at Georgia, where after his promising freshman year, he suffered an injury that allowed freshman Jake Fromm to seize the job. Eason never got it back, but now he’s finally in a position to thrive.

It’s no coincidence that Petersen has said a goal this year for the Huskies is to improve their downfield strikes. Eason has the skill set to do just that. He also has some rough edges that may make this a bumpy ride, but the Huskies’ ceiling with Eason at the helm is intriguing.

All across the college football landscape, quarterback battles are being resolved and revealed as the season openers rapidly approach.

Last week, first-year Miami coach Manny Diaz named redshirt freshman Jarren Williams as the somewhat surprising choice to start over a group of contenders that included Ohio State transfer Tate Martell. On Monday, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley tapped senior Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts as his man, having beaten out a couple of freshmen. On the same day, Ohio State coach Ryan Day announced that Georgia transfer Justin Fields had won the job over Gunner Hoak, a transfer from Kentucky.

It seems the logical thing to do, to bring clarity within the program, end the speculation outside the program and give the anointed QB the necessary first-team reps entering the season.

That hasn’t been Petersen’s way, however. Throughout his coaching tenure, the Husky head man has tended to let his periodic quarterback battles linger – at least publicly – until close to the bitter end.

And if that strategy causes consternation and overheated speculation, well, he doesn’t mind that, either. I remember Petersen’s quote in 2015, when Browning, K.J. Carta-Samuels and Jeff Lindquist vied for the job right down to the wire.

“We would like rumor and speculation; as much as you can do for that, that will help us,” Petersen said jokingly back then, at about this same juncture of the preseason. “Come up with a bunch of different scenarios. That would be good for us.”

A little gamesmanship never hurt anyone, right? In 2015, the Huskies were opening with Boise State, a game that obviously had extra meaning for Petersen, who coached there before being hired by Washington. If the unresolved quarterback situation caused extra problems for Boise State, well, so be it.

Petersen somehow managed to keep it under wraps that Browning had won the job until the team ran out for its first offensive series. But the coach had revealed five days before the game that the Huskies had already picked a quarterback and decided to keep it secret until game day.

“We just really don’t think it’s an advantage to us to tell you our strategy right now at that position,” Petersen said.

Petersen gave a revealing answer to The Idaho Statesman in 2012 when a four-player quarterback competition raged throughout Boise State’s fall camp. For much of camp, he kept the candidates out of media interviews and soft-pedaled his comments about their relative status.

“They have so much to think about,” he told the Statesman. “We put so much on their plate. We’re just trying to help them stay as focused on what they need to focus on and pay attention to the important things.”

Four years earlier, Petersen had also gone down to the wire before naming freshman Kellen Moore the Broncos’ starter. Like Browning, Moore became a four-year starter who shattered passing records. It’s clear in both cases he chose wisely, even if the delayed announcement annoyed some people.

The player Moore beat out for the job, which Petersen finally announced a week before Boise State’s opener against Idaho State, was senior Bush Hamdan.

Hamdan is now Petersen’s offensive coordinator at Washington and obviously had a big say in the 2019 choice. This is the third time under Petersen that the Huskies have had an unsettled QB position leading up to the opener, bookending Browning’s final three years, after he claimed the job. In Petersen’s first year, Lindquist and Troy Williams vied to be Keith Price’s replacement for the opener against Hawaii (though Cyler Miles, suspended for the first game, would take over the job in Week 2).

Exactly one week before the opener, Petersen named Lindquist over Williams but said it was so close it came down to “splitting hairs.” He has used similar terminology to describe how close it came the next year between Browning and Carta-Samuels. And I suspect that when he eventually talks about this year’s decision, Petersen will frame it much the same way.

It’s going to be Eason’s job, even if it’s by a hair.

Now we’ll see how far he can take them.

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